R.I.P. Alfred E. Neuman, Print Periodicals Pending
Until today, I never once wondered what the E stood for in Alfred E. Neuman. Upon learning the news that, after 67 years, Mad Magazine is cutting its production to “year-end specials” for an undetermined time, I cranked up the creaky Google machine to learn (quite to my satisfaction) that the eponymous E, believe it or not, stands for “enigma.” Or at least, that’s what one associate editor once reported. Now I’ve known a few associate editors in my time. Back when life was full of literary ga ga, I was one. And although it is quite an achievement to be an associate editor, it’s not like you’re running the magazine. Far from it, in fact. Still, let’s not detract from the message, because it’s an astute one, no matter who it came from. Alfred Neuman is an enigma. Don’t try to pin him down. He’s a donkey in a pony show, an invertebrate in a hall of skeletons, he’s… well, he’s just mad, isn’t he?
We’re All Mad Here
I can’t say that I have some illuminating history with the anti-establishment periodical. My few memories of reading it, as a kid, consist mostly of skipping to the “Spy Vs Spy” section to see what pre-Itchy & Scratchy shenanigans the white & black spies were up to. From there, I would fall under the mesmerizing spell of the back page’s trifold. And here’s where it got tricky.
To properly appreciate the carefully crafted joke on Mad’s back page, you had to be the first to fold it up in exactly the right places. It was a modern marvel of publishing genius, to be sure. But if you happened to try it out in a comic book store, you’d most likely be caught right quick and thrown out on your ear. Or, more likely, you’d be forced to purchase the item you just creased.
How many hours did I spend in comic book stores? The answer is: hardly any. They didn’t exist much at all in my area. I was more into trading baseball cards anyway. I often dragged my Dad to a store aptly named “My Mother Threw Mine Away.” I only owned maybe three or four issues of Mad in my life because, simply stated, I think I was younger than their target audience. Mad, I believe, was after the pre-teen to early teen demographic, I was still knocking around 3rd grade and figuring what Hank Aaron’s on base percentage was. But Mad’s unique art and the popular movie and television spoofs were enticing, despite not being able to fully grasp all of their satirical wisdom.
This is all to say that Mad Magazine had little to no influence on me.
So why talk about it at all? Fair point.
Print PublIshing In Demise: An Era’s End
Mad is hardly the first to go and it will certainly not be the last. Blame it on technology or lack of consumer interest or the changing times or any number of other like-minded reasons, the point is that print is vanishing into history, slowly but surely. Those die hards who stick with it will one day succumb to the circle of life and leave behind them a plethora of pages. That’s grim.
I reside in both camps. I still hang on to many old paperbacks and hard covers of novels. But for the most part, I’m a digital reader. When it comes to magazines, I subscribe to none, I read none. I’ve been out of that game for a long time. So add me to the list of reasons to blame, Mad Magazine, et al. Print is dead. Long live print. I’m torn.
When you are as cultural an icon as Mad Magazine was, your reputation precedes and (in some ways) defines you. I have no doubt that it meant the world to boys looking for some nonsense to laugh at, perhaps it even inspired some of them to, in some way or other, live creative, future lives. But even more so, it was the thumbing its nose at everyone and everything — that was its calling card. Mad infiltrated the underworld of youth gone secretly berserk and gave them something to believe in — mad-ness. It was a different type of insanity from the Cheshire Cat’s needling grin. Anyone who took their Mad medicine didn’t get locked up in the nuthouse (though I’m sure many parents thought that was where the magazine belonged), rather, they were more prone to the likes of Weird Al and The Simpsons. Was there ever a Weird Al spoof in Mad’s pages? That would be interesting, like the inception of inceptions, pre-Inception.
Bart, Homer, And A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
I do recall fondly two instances on The Simpsons where Mad Magazine was referenced. The first was when Bart walked into Mad’s office. Don’t ask me why or what for (if I had to venture a guess, I think his family was visiting NYC). The reception area was normal-looking and disappointing to him. As he was walking away, a door in the back opened and Bart got a peek at the real office where all kinds of crazy stuff was going on. Alfred E. Neuman himself opened that back door and revealed crazy characters on pogo sticks, others walking on the ceiling, the White spy carooms by quickly, etc. Bart, 100 percent satisfied, exclaims, “Wow, I’ll never wash these eyes again.”
The second instance is, to me, hilarious. It occurred when Homer was trying to solve the back page fold. First, Bart does the fold inside of Comic Book Guy’s bookshop and he immediately tells them, “You fold it, you bought it.” So maybe that’s where I got my previously stolen anecdote. The gag, which I assume is an actual Mad fold-in, begs the question, “What higher power do TV evangelists worship.” The answer, Bart and Milhous learn is, “The almighty dollar.” Later, when Homer tries to do it, despite having the creases supposedly already folded, comes up with his own answer, “The all-ighty Ollar? Hahahaha. I get it.” Classic Homer.
And speaking of Homer, there was another, completely unrelated episode where he went on a quest to learn what the J in his name stood for. Up until then, he was known to himself and the world as Homer J. Simpson. Long story short, it turns out that the J stands for Jay. Which is almost as average an acronym as E is for enigma. And this is as mediocre a spot as any to end this bloggy thing. Seeing that it has turned into a Simpsons retrospective. Sorry, Mad.
Full circle (of life) and all.